Why not a Thomas Jefferson High for poor kids?

Jay Mathews
Columnist October 31, 2012

While we wonder what should be done about our region’s most demanding public high school — Thomas Jefferson— having only 3 percent of its students from poor families, let’s consider a different experiment in selective education. What if we created a school that gave as challenging an academic experience as Jefferson’s to a student body that was 100 percent low-income?

That sounds impossible, doesn’t it? The Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County is the most selective in the country. It has the highest Advanced Placement test participation rate in the region, and it has more college courses on top of that. It dumps a huge academic load on every student. How could we ask so much from kids whose poor, non-college parents lack the affluence and educational achievement to support such serious study?

Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years. View Archive

Yet there is such a place, a sixth-through-12th-grade public charter school called Preuss on the La Jolla campus of the University of California at San Diego. It admits only the children of parents who are low-income and never went to college. It has more than 800 students, 59 percent of them Hispanic, 23 percent Asian, 12 percent black and 6 percent white.

The Advanced Placement test participation rate at the 13-year-old school is nearly equal to Jefferson’s and higher than that of any other public school in this region. Like Jefferson, 100 percent of Preuss graduates each year have at least one passing AP score, while the national average is 18.1 percent.

The story of Preuss is told in a compelling new book, “In the Front Door: Creating a College-Going Culture of Learning,” by one of the school’s founders, Hugh “Bud” Mehan, professor emeritus of sociology and founding director of the Center for Research on Education Equity, Access and Teaching Excellence at UC-San Diego. Mehan and three contributors analyze Preuss and other efforts to raise low-income minority students to University of California standards after university regents and voters banned affirmative action in admissions.

Preuss’s school year is 18 days longer than the state standard. All Preuss high school courses meet college entrance requirements defined by the state’s university systems. Students may serve as interns in UC-San Diego biology and engineering labs, music and theater departments. UC-San Diego students act as tutors. Parents are required to devote 30 hours a year to school activities such as PTA or trip chaperoning.

Under D.C. law, a charter school similar to Preuss would be forced to admit any student who applied, low-income or not, and make the selection by lottery if there weren’t enough space for everyone. California charter law, at least as Preuss officials interpret it, allows more leeway. It goes so far as to open its lottery only to low-income applicants a Preuss committee judges “to have high academic potential but underdeveloped skills,” Mehan says.

That makes Preuss relevant to a long debate over whether charter schools have an unfair advantage because their low-income students have supportive and well-informed parents who took the trouble to apply to a charter. There is no proof that charter parents are better than regular-school parents. Many smart and involved parents have good reasons for preferring regular schools. Many charter parents fail to help their children much.

But if it were true that high-performing charters draw the children of some of the best low-income parents, so what? The Preuss parents raised children who met the school’s standards. They put in their required 30 hours of school support each year. Don’t such conscientious people, given their economic disadvantages, deserve a chance for their children to be taught to the highest possible standard?

Fairfax is a big county with more than enough promising low-income children to fill a magnet school modeled after Preuss. If only a dozen such kids a year can get into Jefferson, how about a Jefferson-like education for the rest?

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